Detroit's Father Vaughan Quinn and His Globetrotters of Hockey Save Both Goals and Souls

updated 04/06/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/06/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

In his daytime guise, Father Vaughan Quinn is the no-nonsense administrator of Detroit's Sacred Heart Rehabilitation Center for alcoholics, but many's the night the silver-haired, 47-year-old Roman Catholic priest is God's little wiseacre. Off comes his clerical garb. On goes 40 pounds of goalie gear. Then, in rinks scattered about the land, he skates onto the ice as the comic guardian of the net for the Flying Fathers, the Harlem Globetrotters of hockey.

"We almost always win because we cheat," the padded padre confesses matter-of-factly. "We play part of the match with the puck tied to one of our star's sticks. If we're down by five goals, we throw a football into the net and claim six points—stuff like that." What about divine intervention? "That helps too. God's on our side."

It's all in fun, of course—and for charity. Since the team's founding eight seasons ago by a Canadian priest, the Flying Fathers have raised an estimated $1.8 million for assorted good causes. Among the skits worked out by the priestly pucksters is the appearance of one of them in a nun's habit, skating on as Sister Mary Shooter. Referees and opponents can expect to catch cream pies in their faces whenever the winded padres need a pause to recover their breath. Goalkeeper Quinn crosses himself ecstatically in thanksgiving after he makes a save, or beats his breast when he doesn't. Both occur often owing to his team's porous defense.

Behind the slapsticks is plenty of hard work. Averaging 30 contests each year, the Flying Fathers have barnstormed the U.S., Canada and Europe. "You'll never find 20 guys more dedicated," Quinn says of his ordained teammates. "Most are playing on their vacation time and have to drive or fly long distances. Many times some of the lads have stumbled back to their parishes at 4 or 5 in the morning, just in time to say the early Mass without any sleep."

For Father Quinn the cause is strikingly personal. "Yes," he openly admits, "I am ex-CIA—Catholic, Irish, Alcoholic." Born in Montreal, the son of a locally revered physician, Quinn was already a hotshot hockey and football player and Golden Gloves boxer by his late teens. "That's when the drinking started," he remembers ruefully. "If you are a jock, getting boozed up is the thing to do. I could out-drink anybody."

He also flunked out of college and, vowing reform, joined the Oblate Fathers of Mary Immaculate. In 10 years he had earned five college degrees and his ordination (in 1963). He stayed completely dry, but that achievement, ironically, made him full of himself. "I really thought I was going to be the first Canadian Pope," he says. "God's gift to Christendom returned to Montreal, and within three days I was back on the sauce."

Disaster followed. He stood up his parishioners because he was too drunk to say Mass. He blacked out during confessions and once fell through the plate-glass window of a nightclub, requiring 18 stitches to his scalp. Quinn's alarmed superiors ordered him into diocesan confinement for a year of drying out. "After I'd been locked up for about eight months I kind of surrendered and decided to help other people," he recalls. "It took a lot of praying." Reassigned to a parish in Alberta, Quinn began studying the treatment of alcoholics.

While visiting a Detroit rehabilitation program for priests in 1967, he discovered the then-ramshackle Sacred Heart Center. "The inmates were screaming about pink elephants; guys were stoned on after-shave lotion," he says. "I took charge. I wouldn't allow anybody in who had a bottle." Enforcing his edict in those days frequently meant doing it with his fists.

But through a combination of ramrod discipline and imaginative fund raising (he collects $500,000 a year), Quinn has turned Sacred Heart into one of the largest facilities of its kind in the U.S.—and among the most successful. In 1972 it moved into a four-story, 100-bed former YWCA in downtown Detroit and has since expanded to include another 150-bed unit nearby. Some 1,500 alcohol and drug abusers annually put themselves under the care of Sacred Heart's paid staff of 150. More than 60 percent of his patients, Father Quinn says, stay sober after they leave.

As amply demonstrated by his hockey playing, Father Quinn has hardly neglected the joyful side of living. He plays the banjo (badly) and raises St. Bernards (several at a time). Somehow he has also amassed a Sacred Heart fleet of five antique fire engines and a hearse, with which he takes his patients for rides through the city streets (occasionally trying the patience of the police). "I know a lot of the stuff I do is flaky and undignified," he allows. "But what I'm really trying to do is to show my people that life can be exciting sober."

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